When NGI’s Director of Education, Sue Baldassano, isn’t teaching or counseling our Chef’s Training students, she is traveling the world with her husband as owners and tour guides of To Grandmothers House We Go. The tours focus on what she deems “traditional” or “legacy” cooking, prepared by women (often grandmothers) who are preserving culinary heritage. Recently, Sue has added Istanbul, Turkey to her roster. Here is a recap of her latest trip:
What do I have in common with Anthony Bourdain? Urbane, sardonic, well-traveled, ex-smoker?
While I may not be in Mr. Bourdain’s league, we both visited Istanbul recently and were pleasantly surprised at the plethora of exciting foods we found. We also both dined at one of Istanbul’s most notable restaurants, Asitane, specializing in the cuisine of the Ottoman Empire (1299-1923).
At the height of its power (16th-17th centuries), the Turkish Empire spanned three continents and controlled much of Western Asia, Eastern and Southeastern Europe, and North Africa. As a result, Turkish cuisine is a unique mixture of Central Asian, Middle Eastern and Balkan elements in terms of flavor prints and ingredients.
The chef owner of Asitane, Batur Durmay, has the glazed look of a man on a mission. The “shopping lists” of the Ottoman Empire inspire his dishes, as detailed recipes from that time are nonexistent. All his ingredients are seasonal and local, and he spends a great deal of time and energy procuring the “best of the best.”
We received real star treatment there, especially when he learned I worked at a mostly plant-based New York culinary school, a curious concept for the lamb-loving Turks.
He did have some vegetarian items on his menu, which were decent, though not as good as those in our Friday Night Dinners. Other interesting items included a Scorpion Fish Soup, Stuffed Grape Leaves with Cherries, Lamb Simmered in Honey and Almonds, and an awesome Pomegranate sherbet made from the bursting pomegranates found all over the city in late November.
As much as I enjoyed the Asitane dining experience, the highlight of the trip was visiting NGI graduate Idil Sanal (CTP 156). In November, Turkey celebrates Bayram. During the holiday, almost everything closes, so we were luckily invited to the home of Idil’s aunt for a traditional family meal. Idil not only picked us up on the European side and drove us to the Asian side of the city, she accompanied us back via a small ferry boat and made sure we were safely back in our hotel. There is nothing like being carted around by a local when you are in an unfamiliar city, and I was appreciative of Idil’s gift of time to us.
The eggplant dish her aunt prepared was tender, sweet and seasoned with butter and milk (so creamy). It was served over braised lamb. Other dishes included a colorful plate of pickled vegetables, 3 or 4 fabulous items with phyllo, and a soup prepared with homemade noodles.
Later that week we toured Istanbul with Selin, another native. She seemed to know every good restaurant and item to eat or buy in the entire city. She is also a schmoozer, trading small talk with all the local merchants and getting us nice deals on some of our purchases.
By ferry we accompanied Selin and her husband Ali to Buyukada, one of several islands off the coast of Istanbul. Overlooking the Marmara Sea we enjoyed a lunch of perfectly grilled bluefish accompanied by a variety of tasty fish appetizers (mezes) and a sampling of Raki, the traditional anise flavored signature liqueur of Turkey. Later we experienced what I thought would be a cheesy buggy ride around the car-free island. It was instead a short yet relaxing romp through a forested and hilly landscape past the typical white-painted wooden houses and sea views tucked behind the leafless autumn tree line. We completed this wonderful afternoon at Selin’s summer cottage drinking homemade sour cherry liqueur prepared from cherries grown on her small and intimate property.
In one week we had so many unique experiences but I would like to share just one more for now – my visit to the baklava factory, Karaköy Güllüoğlu Baklava.
The owner of the company, Nadir Gullu, is just crazy about his product: the wheat for the phyllo is local, the butter comes from a little town in the middle of nowhere, the pistachios are incredible – as good or even better than the famous Bronte Sicilian pistachios. The business has only one location, so that quality control is fully monitored. What impressed me most was that the owner actually knew how to prepare the product himself. You can check out my fun time at the baklava plant on the NGI Facebook page.
The baklava was outstanding. For another taste of one of those perfectly formed gems, a return trip to Turkey (group tour August 16th-23rd) is definitely on the menu.